Lebanon and the crisis in wider Arab statehood

Lebanon's political crisis is a crisis of wider Arab statehood
6 min read
19 Jul, 2021
Opinion: Lebanon is experiencing a crisis of statehood that plagues other Arab countries in similar ways. Rami Khouri explores the dynamics that have emerged over the last century to get us where we are today.
The Grand Serail Government Palace in Beirut, Lebanon. Prime Minister-designate Hariri resigned last Thursday [Getty]

Those who plunged the latest dagger into Lebanon's reeling body are supposed to be the people leading it out of collapse and reviving its people's vibrant role in the Arab region. 

President Michel Aoun did not agree on Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri's proposed cabinet, and Hariri resigned within minutes, ending a nine-month-old drama. This immediately triggered a drop in both the value of the faltering national currency and in people's hopes for an end to their daily misery in all walks of life

The Lebanese people are collectively holding their breath yet again, as they anticipate another drawn-out political crisis among the half a dozen leaders of the main political parties whose collective absolute rule has devastated the country in recent years. But these leaders appear determined to continue their selfish game of holding on to political power at all costs.

"It is time to acknowledge the structural faults in the system of Lebanese statehood and others in the region that have brought us to this low point"

This cycle of political discord among self-serving sectarian leaders has intensified since the current crisis began two years ago. But political stalemates like the Hariri-Aoun butting-of-heads that bring governance to a halt have occurred regularly in recent decades. 

The slow collapse of governance, the economy, and modern life as we know it across Lebanon - especially in big cities where most people live - signals that what we witness today is not just a political crisis among two ideological actors.

Rather, it reflects a deeper crisis of statehood that is not only tragic for Lebanon but also plagues other Arab countries in similar ways. It is time to acknowledge the structural faults in the system of Lebanese statehood and others in the region that have brought us to this low point.

The costs of the crisis have become clear to every Lebanese household -- other than the clients, business partners, guards, and employees of the ruling oligarchic elite. Alongside Sunni leader Hariri and Christian Maronite leader Aoun, this elite includes House Speaker Nabih Berri, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, and a few less powerful men who nevertheless play the deadly Lebanese political game with the same determination and catastrophic results.

They are all men, many of them are ageing, most of them inherited their positions from family or comrades, and all of them have given the Arab region its most spectacular example of how to run a once decent state into the ground and plunge its five million inhabitants into instant poverty and despair. 

Daily reports from Lebanon depict how families suffer at every turn - electric power has almost vanished, meaning air conditioning, internet, refrigerators and elevators work only sporadically; gasoline is difficult to find and more expensive every week; food prices rise steadily while the value of the lira declines in tandem; essential medicines for infants or the elderly are almost impossible to find; clean water is supplied erratically; the banks with people's life savings are forbidden territory.

"Most of them inherited their positions from family or comrades, and all of them have given the Arab region its most spectacular example of how to run a once decent state into the ground"

Even when a cash withdrawal is possible the exchange rate set by the Central Bank means a depositor actually gets about 20 percent of the value of their original deposit. The education system is mostly in freefall, and decent new jobs do not exist.

More and more essential businesses will only accept cash dollars, which are beyond the reach of most ordinary Lebanese. Many increasingly survive by resorting to communal kitchens, charity handouts, borrowing, growing their own food in their ancestral mountain villages, or engaging in barter economy activities. 

Those who can emigrate do so as fast as possible, but most cannot. The result is millions of angry, frustrated, fearful, and helpless Lebanese and foreign refugee families that feel so vulnerable and degraded that they find it hard to articulate their pain in words. Many have been stunned into a state of dehumanization, feeling that their own political and national leaders have treated them like animals. 

This extreme situation is most dramatic for not being the consequence of war, but rather the result of the ruling elite's sustained mismanagement, corruption, and disdain for the wellbeing and rights of fellow citizens.

The current crisis, as last week's Hariri-Aoun show reconfirmed, reflects the convergence of several separate crises (political, economic, fiscal, banking, energy, environmental) that all are due to poor or absent decision-making by the ruling elite that has controlled the state since the end of the civil war in 1990. 

"Many have been stunned into a state of dehumanization, feeling that their own political and national leaders have treated them like animals"

The truth, though, is that this elite has controlled the state for much longer than that, in fact for most of the past century of statehood. The current collapse does not only reflect the ruling elite's selfish incompetence; it also reveals the unsustainable structures of Lebanese sectarian statehood itself.

The timeline of an entire century since 1920 is important to keep in mind, for it reveals several threads that contribute to the weakness and slow implosion of the Lebanese state and economy.

Many contributing factors can be traced back to four dynamics that all have run their course over the past century: 1) the delayed consequences of European colonial decisions around 1920 that manufactured many Arab states; 2) the consequence of the Arab-Israeli conflict (also a century old); 3) the lack of genuine citizen participation in political decision-making or accountability in Arab states; and, 4) the non-stop interference in Arab countries by neighbouring or foreign powers, making Arab state sovereignty a common fiction.

"This extreme situation is most dramatic for not being the consequence of war, but rather the result of the ruling elite's sustained mismanagement, corruption, and disdain for the wellbeing"

Over the last 100 years, these four dynamics have brought us to the point where Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Yemen, and Libya, to mention only the most obvious, experience severe national distress that ultimately brings a state to its knees and citizens to despair or emigration.

Across the Arab region, a common picture emerges that now also plagues Lebanon: a majority of citizens are poor, vulnerable, and politically helpless, and their governments and state institutions increasingly hold citizen anger and rebellion in check by using military and security measures above all else.

Lebanon was born in the regional tumult of Arab independent statehood after 1920; it is imploding today within the continuing pressures of its own and other nearby Arab lands’ dysfunctional statehood, usually due to the same quartet of causes that date back a full century.

Lebanon reminds us that stable, democratic, productive, and genuinely sovereign Arab states remain an elusive goal, as we enter the second century of statehood and citizenship.

 

Rami G. Khouri is Director of Global Engagement and senior public policy fellow at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Middle East Initiative. 

Follow him on Twitter: @ramikhouri

Have questions or comments? Email us at editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.